By Selen Ozturk l April 26, 2023
Harry Belafonte, the Jamaican-American singer, actor, and political activist, died aged 96 on Tuesday.
His longtime publicist Ken Sunshine said Belafonte died of congestive heart failure at his Manhattan, New York home, his wife Pamela Frank beside him.
Belafonte is most widely known for his hit songs “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song,” “Jump in the Line (Shake, Señora),” and “Jamaica Farewell,” released in the mid-1950s and early 1960s. His third studio album, “Calypso” (1956), stayed at the top of the Billboard chart for 31 weeks, and was the first album by one artist to sell over one million copies within a year. Three years later, he was the highest-paid Black performer in history.
On Twitter, President Biden eulogized this “groundbreaking American who used his talent and voice to help redeem the soul of our nation. Harry Belafonte’s accomplishments are legendary and his legacy of outspoken advocacy, compassion, and respect for dignity will endure forever.”
Born in Harlem in 1927 to Jamaican-born parents Harold George Bellanfanti Sr., a chef, and Melvine, a housekeeper, he lived from age five to 13 with his grandmother in Kingston, Jamaica. He returned to New York to attend George Washington High School, dropped out for reasons of dyslexia and delinquency, and served in the Navy during World War II.
Though a calypso, folk, gospel, and blues musician, Belafonte was also a stage, TV and film actor from the 1940s through the 2010s. In 1954, when Black faces on Broadway beyond what he deemed “Uncle Tom” roles were few and far between, he won a Tony award for starring in the musical revue “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.” In 1959, he became the first Black performer to win an Emmy for the TV show “Tonight with Harry Belafonte.”
On Twitter, Mia Farrow bid farewell to this “beautiful singer, brilliant and brave civil rights activist, a deeply moral and caring man.”
The rapper Ice Cube called him “more than a singer, more than an actor and more than a man.”
The activist and football quarterback Colin Kaeperinick quoted Belafonte himself, writing “Movements don’t die, because struggle doesn’t die.”
Belafonte’s boundary-breaking success continued in Hollywood. His first lead role, in Robert Rossen’s drama “Island in the Sun” (1957) alongside Joan Fontaine, was part of the first interracial romance between a Black man and a white woman in the country.
Although his acting career continued as late as Spike Lee’s Oscar-winning “BlacKkKlansman” (2018), in which he fittingly played an aging political activist, Belafonte devoted himself to civil rights from the late 1950s on.
Alongside his mentor — the singer, actor, and activist Paul Robeson — he counted among his friends Sidney Poitier, Joan Baez, Marlon Brando, Muhammad Ali, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr., who Belafonte bailed out of jail in 1963.
King’s daughter, Bernice King, shared on Twitter a photo of Belafonte at her father’s funeral, and said the icon “showed up for my family in very compassionate ways.”
Belafonte co-organized the 1963 March on Washington that featured King’s “I Have a Dream” speech; was a main funder of the Freedom Riders, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference; maintained an insurance policy on King’s life; and donated money to King’s family after the civil rights leader was assassinated in 1968.
In later decades Belafonte won a Kennedy Center Honor (1989), the National Medal of Arts (1994), and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2000). He organized the four-time Grammy-winning charity single “We Are the World” (1985) by the supergroup USA for Africa, raising over $63 million dollars for famine relief; was appointed as a goodwill ambassador to UNICEF in 1987; and visited countries across Africa from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s for causes of peace, HIV/AIDS relief, anti-apartheid, and literacy.
Well into his ninth decade, Belafonte’s life reflected what he told the New York Times in 1959: “If there is no change we might just as well go back to the first ‘ugh,’ which must have been the first song.”
Feature image: Harry Belafonte, speaking at a rally and march opposing the beginning of the Afghanistan war, in Oakland, CA. 4/15/2003 Photo © by David Bacon, used by permission.